A Standard Operating Procedure developed by the United States federal government allegedly for the purposes of stopping terrorists from detonating radio-activated bombs, may actual be being used as a cellular phone and internet killswitch at protests across the country.
Government Fights to Keep Internet Killswitch Secret
On Monday, January 11th, 2016, the US Supreme Court declined to hear a petition from EPIC, the Electronic Privacy Information Center. EPIC’s petition asked the court to force the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to release details of Standard Operating Procedure 303 (SOP 303), also known as the government’s secret cellular phone and internet killswitch.
EPIC’s battle for information about the killswitch started in 2011, and while they weren’t able to get the Supreme Court to force a complete release of the details of SOP 303, they were able to get some information on it during the legal battle against the government, including a heavily redacted copy of SOP 303. The redacted copy states in part that the purpose of SOP 303 is to provide “detailed procedures for the National Coordinating Center for Telecommunications (NCC) to coordinate requests for the disruption of cellular service.” According to SOP 303 the disruption or disabling of “cellular service to a particular site or region” may be requested “by a designated federal/state/local law enforcement official or member of government…”
Homeland Security Partners With Private Sector to Surveil and Shutdown Internet
SOP 303 was approved by the National Communications System on March 9, 2006. The National Communications System was an office of the DHS, but was disbanded by Executive Order 13618 in July of 2012. According to EPIC, “In a 2006-2007 Report, the President’s National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee (‘NSTAC’) indicated that SOP 303 would be implemented under the coordination of the National Coordinating Center (‘NCC’) of the NSTAC, while the decision to shut down service would be made by state Homeland Security Advisors or individuals at DHS. The report indicates that NCC will determine if a shutdown is necessary based on a ‘series of questions.’”
The NCC partners with corporations in the private sector such as Qualcomm, AT&T, Motorola, Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Vonage, among many others. Two particular corporations that partner with the NCC are the Harris Corporation, which happens to manufacture the Stingray and other IMSI catchers/cell site simulators, and Boeing, which owns Digital Receiver Technology, Inc., also known as DRT, which manufactures DRTboxes, cell site simulators that are often used in aircraft. Not only does the Harris Corporation and DRT, Inc. supply the FBI, US Marshals Service, and other federal agencies with IMSI catchers, it also supplies these devices to state and local law enforcement agencies across the country. Many local and state law enforcement agencies purchased their cell site simulators with the help of grants from the Department of Homeland Security.
Protests Across the Country Have Cellular Internet Cut Off or Manipulated
The killswitch may have been engaged for the first time back in 2011. For a period of 3 hours on August 11, 2011 at four Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) stations in San Francisco. The cellular services were shutdown during a protest of the July 2011 shooting of a homeless man by a BART officer. BART alleged that they did not use jamming technology, but that they simply had the five telecommunication companies that they contract with shutdown their services which provides cellular phone and internet services underground and at the stations.
It is possible that the government may have used the internet killswitch again, during the standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in 2016. On Sunday, January 31st, 2016, Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) interviewed David Fry, one of four remaining occupiers at the time, who told OPB that, “the FBI made it so the occupiers can’t make outgoing calls on their cellphones,” and that only his cell phone, “can receive incoming calls, but that the other three in the refuge appear unable to receive calls on their cellphones.” The occupiers also told OPB that they had lost access to the internet. According to TheCount.com, “Supporters who attempt to call Fry end up reaching the FBI instead.”
More recently the cellular internet killswitch may have been engaged during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock in North Dakota. In one video posted to Facebook in early December 2016 by anti-DAPL activist Josh Long, phones are shown being shutoff, one phone is shown going from fully charged to a drained battery state, and another phone that was halfway charged then became drained as well. Some protesters claim their phone’s GPS function was switched on while at the protest. Other protesters reported the tell-tale signs of an IMSI catcher being in the area, such as a change in signal strength, or the network being degraded from LTE to 2G. Others claimed their phones had malware installed on them while at Standing Rock.
In December, actor and activist Matt McGorry told Observer.com that he and fellow actor Kendrick Sampson experienced problems documenting the front lines of the DAPL protest at Standing Rock. Observer reported that McGorry, “explained that upon approaching the front lines, his phone said it had no memory left and wouldn’t allow him to take more videos or photos. He said this was never an issue before, and that 30 minutes later when he was further from the front lines, his phone was working fine again. He said this happened two days in a row and that Sampson experienced a similar problem as well.”
According to activist Josh Long, in December, the tell-tale signs of an IMSI catcher being deployed in the area of Standing Rock were noticed by protesters when several helicopters flew overhead, reportedly accompanied by a Predator drone. The North Dakota Air National Guard does have a General Atomics MQ-1 Predator drone stationed at it’s base in Fargo, North Dakota. The Predator drone can be loaded with equipment to surveil and jam cellular signals, The Intercept has a list of PGL Payloads that can be placed on a Predator drone. Some aircraft flying over Standing Rock have been using fake tail numbers, including one that was identified as a private helicopter being flown to support law enforcement efforts. It is possible DRTboxes may have been aboard these aircraft. Complaints have been made to the FAA over the use of false tail numbers.
The fight to uncover more information about the governments use of SOP 303 and covert use of IMSI catchers continues. Non-profit organizations and even a federal agency is investigating the possible illegal use of IMSI catchers at Standing Rock. The National Lawyers Guild and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a federal Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) request and a state Open Records Request on October 20th, 2016 to investigate the use of unconstitutional surveillance at Standing Rock. John Wathen, a photojournalist who was at Standing Rock, told the Huffington Post that he had been interviewed by an investigator from the FCC and that, “The FCC has opened an investigation into the use of “Stingray” technology against Water Protectors.”